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  • Asela Lee Kemper

For Honor: How Dante Basco Bridges His Art Through Words

Many people, especially in the Asian community, know who Dante Basco is. An actor better known for his role on screen as Rufio in Steven Spielberg’s Hook, he was also the voice behind characters such as Jake Long, the teenage fighter who turns into a dragon from Disney’s American Dragon: Jake Long and firebender Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Basco’s presence in Hollywood, both on and off screen, brought representation to places where seeing even one Asian character was rare. For kids in the 90s and early 00s, whether watching cartoons or sitcoms, there were little to no shows that had characters who looked Asian—let alone someone of Filipino descent. Vast majority of cartoons such as The Fairly Odd Parents, Dexter’s Laboratory, or The Simpsons centered around white male characters while side characters, usually people of color, were either racially stereotyped or only existed to support the protagonist. While anime such as Naruto and Sailor Moon came from Japan and told stories through an Asian character’s perspective, many of them that were imported to the US had to Americanize their names. Basco took a different route.

From voicing beloved cartoon characters to making his directorial debut last year with the film The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, Basco portrays characters who are not only Asian but also introduce audiences to authentic stories that do not fall into a stereotype.

So when I heard that Basco wrote poetry and founded a weekly poetry reading event, my poet self felt a boost of excitement.

In fact, Basco is no stranger to this form of creative writing. He started writing poetry when he was fifteen and attending high school. Poetry helped him explore identity, experience first love, and shape his artistic identity. He even published a book in 2010, Dante’s Poetry Lounge, that touches on these topics, including poems that discuss what it means to be Asian American, specifically Filipino American.

His love for poetry led him to create a now nationally known open mic program called Da Poetry Lounge (DPL). Originally called Dante’s Poetry Lounge, Basco began hosting the weekly poetry readings in his living room in 1997. By the following year, he successfully brought a large crowd of artists and poets together to read their poems and engage with the poetry community. Because of the open mic’s great popularity and inevitable schedule conflicts, Basco met with poetry greats Ron "Shihan" VanClief, Devan "Poetri" Smith and "Brutha" Gimmel Hooper to found the open mic program at Greenway Court Theatre in Los Angeles, California, a bigger venue for all poets to come and perform.

For those who want to know how DPL works, all performers—both new poets and veterans—sign up early and line up next to the microphone on stage, sometimes three or four hours ahead of time. Performers are called on a “first-come-first-serve” basis. There is a time limit of three minutes at the mic. Although there may be a long wait to perform, many people who attend the event enjoy the opportunity to hang out with other writers or be together with family.

For over nineteen years since this event was held in Basco’s living room, poets and artists have been meeting at DPL every Tuesday night at Greenway Court Theatre (the show has been taken to IG Live for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic). They engage with the poetry community in the Los Angeles area while reading poems ranging on themes from identity to political advocacy. DPL also hosts events celebrating historically underrepresented communities such as Slam Nights, the Get Down Festival, and Women & Femmes Night. Poets from DPL have competed in national poetry competitions including National Poetry Slam (NPS), an annual poetry slam tournament where teams of slam poets compete against one another for the national team title. In 2018, the slam team from DPL took second place in the nation—the winning members were Hood Profet GSC, Alex Luu, Kito Fortune, Yaw Osafo-Kantanka Kyeremateng, and Yesika Salgado.

Another resource that DPL provides is their recent poetry workshop. In collaboration with local organization Spoken Literature Art Movement (S.L.A.M), DPL offers virtual poetry workshops on a first-come-first-serve basis for poets and writers who want to improve their craft. Half of their proceeds will be donated through S.L.A.M to poets who were impacted by COVID-19.

While reading about Basco’s poetry and DPL, I experience a feeling of being seen. At DPL, each poet’s voice is heard by a large crowd. DPL celebrates diversity and inclusivity. It allows space for writers of color to share their stories, their truth. That’s what the beauty of poetry can be: bringing communities together and welcoming them to be their authentic selves.

During an interview with the Inquirer in 2017, Basco shared his mission of using his platform of over 30 years’ experience in the acting industry to uplift future Asian American creators and poets. “There is a big push for me to help create a genre, to create opportunities for the next generation,” he said. “In order for Filipino Americans to make a bigger presence in the greater community, we must create product. It is our chance to win, it is how our voice will be heard.”

Using his platform and love for poetry, Basco continues to open space for artists, especially artists of color, to share their stories as their truest selves.

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Asela L. Kemper - Oregon

Co-Editor Chopsticks Alley Pinoy

Asela holds a BFA in Creative Writing with a minor in Emerging Media & Digital Arts from Southern Oregon University. She holds many positions including poetry reader for Timberline Review (also as a copyeditor for poetry), Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and Marías at Sampaguitas, contributor for Royal Rose Magazine, and poetry editor for Ayaskala. She has also previously published in SOU Student Press, Flawless Mag: The Border Issue, Silk Club: QUIET, Reclamation Mag, and No Tender Fences. Asela uses her passion for creative writing to open conversations on diversity and identity in literature. As an Asian American, she uses her platform to engage and uplift underrepresented Asian American artists. She resides in Oregon, USA with her family.

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